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City maintenance supervisor ruled not a public figure

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  1. Libel and Privacy
City maintenance supervisor ruled not a public figure10/18/94 MINNESOTA -- In early September, the Minnesota Court of Appeals in St.…

MINNESOTA — In early September, the Minnesota Court of Appeals in St. Paul ruled that a city maintenance supervisor was not a “public official,” and therefore upheld a lower court’s libel award against a Minnesota newspaper.

A Duluth district court jury awarded Richard J. LeDoux, the Duluth Street and Traffic Control Maintenance Supervisor for the downtown district, $676,000 for statements contained in news articles and editorials in the Duluth News-Tribune. The newspaper reported that “a city crew paved the street where [LeDoux] owned the only home.” In editorials, the paper described LeDoux’s conduct as “wanton” and “disgraceful.”

The newspaper argued that the trial court should have required LeDoux to prove it acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — because they believed he qualified as a “public official.” However, the trial court ruled that LeDoux was a private individual for the purposes of this libel action, and only needed to prove that the paper acted negligently.

In his official capacity, LeDoux supervised approximately 30 full-time employees and 16- 20 seasonal employees who removed snow. LeDoux also had occasional contact with the public when individuals telephoned him regarding problems concerning roadways in his district.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that LeDoux was not a public official because, among other things, he was never involved in high level policy matters such as setting up the budget. The court also reasoned that there was no evidence that the public had an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of LeDoux beyond that of any government employee.

The court also ruled that LeDoux did not thrust himself forward in an attempt to influence the outcome of a public controversy. The court noted that even media coverage of earlier lawsuits LeDoux filed does not automatically elevate him from a private to a public figure.

(LeDoux v. Northwest Publishing; Media Counsel: Marshall H. Tanick, Minneapolis)

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